They Made Me a Homosexual: Mail Order Catalogs

Sears, Christmas, 1965OK. I don’t really think these bits of cultural ephemera created in my nubile little child-brain the lust and longing for members of my own gender that would propel so much of my behavior through the rest of my life. So maybe mail order catalogs didn’t make me a homo. But I’m convinced they helped to shape the kind of homo I would become.

The images we breathe in from day to day help us to settle on a particular aesthetic bent. I may have been pre-programmed with an interest in men. But what aspects of manliness would eventually catch my juvenile eye wasn’t set until I had a chance to see what was out there. And living as shuttered a life as I did, catalogs were an important window into the wonders of maleness to be found beyond the confines of my room.

Sears, Christmas, 1969There was nothing as exciting as the arrival of the Sears Wishbook — the annual Christmas catalog — which seemed to hit our door sometime in late August. Not only did it give me plenty of time to drool over toys I might get, or to fetishize the four-color pages of artificial trees, ornaments and fruitcakes. But with some 400 pages in each book, there was a lot of other stuff to fire my fantasies, too.

Even before I began to lock the bathroom door and turn deliberately to the men’s underwear sections of these books, there were other images of men (and men’s fashions) that mesmerized me. The perfect man of the mid-60s catalog world became my perfect man, too. He had strong features, full lips, broad shoulders, big hands and great sideburns: all features that continue to grab my attention today.

They seem to pull me away from the present and back to the sense memories of that five-year-old boy. Suddenly, those memories are as crisp and vivid as when they were brand new. And they still hold the power to lure me into an almost trance-like state, to leave me floating outside of time and space, here and now, like the magical images of some mystical religion.

Sorry … I got carried away there.

JC Penney, Fall, 1973Anyway, it was only a short path from this gateway flavor of soft porn to the hard-core debauchery of the Fall and Spring catalogs. By the time I was dragging those five-pound books around with me, I knew exactly what I was after. And to raise the stakes for my hormone-saturated brain, by this point we had already reached the early 1970s.

For those of you who don’t know your low-end men’s underwear history, those were the years of low-rise briefs, bikinis and, yes, mesh underwear. I still can’t look at those men in mesh briefs and shirts without trying desperately to find evidence of those things that are supposed to be hidden from polite view: a patch of chest hair, the happy trail leading down into the waist band of the model’s briefs or (is it even possible?) a glimpse of some real pubic bush.

I don’t expect anyone else to find something redeeming in these images — never mind something really hot — but you can still enjoy the styling of the men and the finest catalog copy money could buy.

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17 Responses to “They Made Me a Homosexual: Mail Order Catalogs”

  1. Wonderful post. I think it is interesting to look at how gay men coming of age after WWII looked to the ever growing supply of images in popular culture (and especially with the rise of TV) as a way in which to construct their identity. I certainly did and I also found catalogs a source of inspiration. I remember a JCP catalog I think in the early 80’s with a full page picture of a cute guy in pale green underwear that displayed everything. It certainly held my attention for many months!

    Good luck with your blog; I look forward to future posts.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m a big fan of your blog, The Great Within: beautiful thinking, wonderfully expressed.

    And if you ever come across that JC Penney catalog, please share it.

    [For anyone who doesn’t know The Great Within, this recent post of Mr. Keating’s is a good place to start: “Growing Up Queer: Captain Kirk, Chuck Heston and Wonder Woman.”]

  3. Chris D. says:

    Awesome post! I am a 31 year old “femme” gay guy. But that line about “the full lips, the big sideburns, and big hands.” WHOA baby! You so hit the nail on the head as far as the kind of guy I find to be so attractive. Thanks for your wonderful writing. You rock!

  4. admin says:

    You just described yourself as “femme” with an emphatic pride in your tone. I’d say you’re the one who rocks!

    (Thanks for reading and for the comment.)

  5. Richard says:

    Man, I thought I was the only one that took the JC Penny catalog to the bathroom. I first sixcovered the hot men in briefs in the 80’s. And to his day I love seeing a man in white briefs. I would always stare at the bulge wondering what was underneath. Thanks for sharing.

  6. admin says:

    Oh, I was only partially kidding when I said they made me a homo. Just as millions of straight boys spent their formative years ogling catalog models in bras and panties, I’m sure there were just as many gay boys staring at the men’s underwear sections. And since we were so much more starved for visual stimulation, I suspect we got a bigger charge out of our discoveries than those straight boys ever did.

    Thanks for your comments and for reading.

  7. Rick C says:

    I remember looking at the photo of the “bare chested guy” from the Sears catalog for many years until the catalog got thrown out by my parents. I actually started buying 70’s catalogs on EBay to see if I could find it (him) again. I have a Spring-Summer 1973 (Kansas City, MO) edition, but for some reason, the pages are different from the photos in your blog, and his photo isn’t there! Thanks for posting it, because I would still be wondering if I had dreamed the whole thing up.

    i also have comics of Tarzan and super heroes in spandex, so I guess they made me gay, too!

  8. admin says:

    I knew there had to be other men in the world who’d spent at least a few hours of their childhoods scanning the men’s underwear pages of the Sears catalog. I’m so delighted to have found one at last.

    I just double-checked to make sure I hadn’t gotten the date wrong on Mr. Bare Chest, but that page is indeed the Spring-Summer 1973 edition of the Sears catalog, this one published for the Philadelphia market. I guess it’s possible that some items were only available in some parts of the country and not others, but it seems like that would require a lot of extra editions of each catalog. That particular model seemed a favorite of the photographers, so he showed up throughout many of those books all through my childhood.

    Glad you enjoyed the photos.

  9. tom says:

    I, too, did this. I had to be careful because I began to notice sometimes the catalog would open right up to the page from uh…extensive full body pressure during my careful examination! When it was time to throw out the catalog, I would volunteer to do it, and kept a collection of whole page or specific cut outs before it went into the trash! I recall in one of their final catalogs, a kind of locker room scene, and remember a cute dark haired guy standing to the side at 3/4 (instead of facing the front as the models normally did), and being able to make out the profile of his crotch in exact detail! Unfortunately, that catalog was thrown out before I had a chance to add it to my collection! It would be good to find it again for nostalgia –Sears circa late 80s or early 90s.

  10. admin says:

    And that is why God created eBay. If you can just figure out which edition of the catalog it was, you can re-collect the very artifacts that shaped your erotic sensibilities as a child.

    Well, for a price. Strip mining your childhood memories isn’t cheap.

  11. I am 67 years old. Images of men’s underwear (particularly long underwear) in mail-order catalogs and other male targeted magazines e.g. Outdoor Life, Fields and Streams, etc. certainly played a role in developing my gay self-identity as well. I still enjoy seeing these vintage images. Thanks for posting this blog.

  12. admin says:

    I’m so glad to hear from someone else who found this stuff arousing as a kid. From the tone of your comment, I’m guessing you still have some fondness for it, as I do. It gives me this weird mix of erotic charge and a kind of melancholy nostalgia.

    Your Tumblr site has some nice new images: Winterskins47. But kf you’ve ever bothered to track down some of the images you remember most vividly from childhood – I’m convinced that 50% of eBay sales come from people mining for relics from childhood – and if you ever have the time or inclination to share, I’d really like to hear more.

    Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

  13. Dave H says:

    Underwear models are hot.Especially manly virile men , remember my mom’s Family Circle from mid 1980s Ed Marinaro had me turned on in his aqua bikini briefs that looked painted onto his HOT bubble butt Woof

  14. admin says:

    Glad I could help to stir up some adolescent memories.

  15. bob says:

    I loved looking at the mens and boys long johns, I couldn’t spend enough time looking at and reading Sears and Penny’s books

    I bought much of my cloths by mail I spent days looking for just the right outfits.

    I did a better job of buying long johns, anything else I bought looked better in the book than it did on me.

    Today I identify as a male but more of a hiding sissy male.

  16. Phil says:

    I too was one of those boys who enjoyed the men’s underwear pages as I started to discover my sexuality. I would look forward to the new editions of my mother’s Great Universal and Littlewoods catalogues here in the UK and I still have a fondness for the men of the 1970s who appeared in them. As you say, I think this is mix of erotic charge and a kind of melancholy nostalgia. Thank you for your great writing.

  17. admin says:

    Thank you for sharing your recollections. (Now I have to look into vintage catalogs from Great Universal and Littlewoods, which probably cost a fortune on eBay).

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